Part One: Therapy for Changing Families

June 5, 2023

Divorce can be a complex and an emotionally overwhelming experience for children. Therapy serves as a vital support system to help them navigate the changes and heal from the wounds of family separation. Hear from a few of our Clinicians below on just how beneficial therapy can be for kids in changing families.

Wedad Omer, Resident in Counseling

Having a therapist during one of the hardest experiences can alleviate immense stress and provide a safe space to work through personal issues. Oftentimes, kids will say, “This space is for me,” or “I like that I can share my feelings here without feeling like a burden.”

Therapy can help kids develop resilience and adaptive skills in an unbiased space. They learn that they cannot control the situation, however, therapy can help them navigate the emotional and practical challenges associated with the divorce, promoting their healthy development and well-being.

Amy Andrukonis, Supervisee in Clinical Social Work

Separation or divorce is a big transition for every member of the family. Parents may notice new emotions or behaviors in children around the time of a separation or divorce, similar to how we notice such reactions around other tricky transitions – back to school, the addition of a new sibling, etc.

To set the stage for success, all adults in a child’s life should continually assure the child that divorce is a grown-up problem/decision. There is nothing children can do to cause or to “fix” the separation. While adults involved may realize that the divorce or separation is the healthiest thing for the family system, many children will not see it this way right away, and want to “get their parents back together.” This is a typical impulse for children and does not mean your child will feel this way forever.

Big Feelings for a Big Kid Conversation

The role of the therapist is to be a sturdy container for all the emotions the child is experiencing. Many children are comforted to hear that other children have experienced those same feelings or the tried-and-true encouragement: “It makes sense that you feel that way, I think I’d feel the same way in your situation.”

It also is useful to name and normalize feelings the child has not expressed yet, in case they actually are experiencing those feelings but did not feel brave enough to share yet, or to prepare them in the event those feelings arise later.

Finally, a therapist can highlight all that has stayed the same in their life, For example, statements like:

  • “You still have two parents who love you!”
  • “You still go to the same school!”
  • “You still have gymnastics on Wednesdays!”
  • “Your favorite color is still red!” 

It is important to also allow the child to name all the things that have changed, too.

Katie Thompson, Supervisee in Clinical Social Work

Families look a million different ways, which is what makes them beautiful. When working with kids who are navigating a divorce in their family, I try to encourage them to celebrate what makes their family special. Often in these conversations, I find myself feeling grateful for all the wonderful ways parents show up for their children, regardless. They might be exhausted and they show up. They might be hurting and they show up. They might have oatmeal dried up in their hair and they show up.

In these conversations, I interact with kids who are learning that love doesn’t follow all the “shoulds” we learn in the movies and books, but rather that love just IS. LOVE SHOWS UP. Doesn’t matter how, or who, or which loved one is in the pickup line or at the bus stop, it only matters that they’re there.

I have also seen kids function in the same way for their parents. Kids have this amazing ability to recognize when someone is hurting, even the ones hiding it the most. They are like human lie detectors. Their spidey senses activate and they become the wisest people on earth, giving hugs, asking questions, wanting to go to the grocery store with you, wanting to sit on the toilet while you shower. No matter how weird or wonky the love language, they are showing up.

I love all the wonderfully different ways families look, it’s something to celebrate, and it’s something worth showing up for.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Therapy for Changing Families.

Until next time, Be Wise!